NS: The vote is in — mill workers accept contract offer

Erin Pottie
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The Cape Breton Post

After two days of voting, members of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Local 972 voted 85.6 per cent in favour of a final contract offer by Pacific West Commercial Corp.

Union members Joey McNamara, Steve MacDougall and Gary Burns wait outside the union hall of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Local 972 in Port Hawkesbury on Tuesday evening to hear voting results on a mill contract offer.

[PORT HAWKESBURY, NS] — There won’t be jobs for all workers, but unionized employees of a Point Tupper paper mill showed their willingness to keep jobs at home in accepting a contract offer by the mill’s proposed buyer.

After two days of voting, members of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Local 972 voted 85.6 per cent in favour of a final contract offer by Vancouver-based Pacific West Commercial Corp.

The contract offer follows 16 days of negotiations between the two sides and a decision by Pacific West to not operate the mill’s newsprint machines.

Instead, Pacific West owner Ron Stern said the company only intends to operate the mill’s supercalendered paper machine, leaving about half of NewPage’s 550 unionized workers without a job.

Debbie Lee of Port Hawkesbury, who works in accounting at the mill, wouldn’t say how she voted but said there were few options. Under the new contract, workers such as Lee will be given a new defined contribution plan.

“It’s either take it or leave it, so we have no choice,” said Lee. “If we want to work we have to take it. I could have retired in February but I waited to see what was going to happen here. So now I have the decision whether to retire before ratification of this contract and keep all my benefits, or to wait and hopefully to be hired back. If I’m not hired back, I still retire but I don’t have any benefits.”

Steven MacDougall, union recording secretary, said with only two hours left to vote on Tuesday evening, said about 300 out of a possible 550 votes were cast.

If the membership voted against the offer, the mill would have likely proceeded through the rest of its creditor protection process, which included the possible liquidation of company assets.

“Most people, I think, seem resigned to the fact that this is the best-case scenario,” said MacDougall. “We accept this and the mill goes on and moves forward, and at least a portion of our workforce goes back to work.”

Both the local union and the wider Atlantic brotherhood recommended NewPage workers accept the offer. MacDougall said in doing so, about 80 per cent of the mill’s employees will return to the mill based on seniority.

Don MacKenzie, Atlantic representative of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers, was parked outside the union hall Tuesday awaiting the final tally.

“The mill has been down quite a number of months now and I think people understand this presents an opportunity that operations may resume, as difficult as it is,” said MacKenzie. “If the vote is ‘Yes, to ratify this,’ it’s a clear indication that the past is the past and they’re prepared as a membership to move forward.”

Port Hawkesbury Mayor Billy Joe MacLean didn’t return phone calls on Tuesday evening but told the Post on Monday that it’s not only NewPage jobs that will be created in accepting the mill offer.

“There’s another 80 engineers and technical people, supervisor staff and secretarial,” said MacLean. “So there’s really about 315 (jobs) and in addition to that there’s forestry and woodlands. So there’s 750 to 785 jobs total.”

MacLean said the public also hasn’t acknowledged the company’s profit-sharing agreement, which he says is a proven success story at a Stern-owned mill in Whitecourt, Alta.

A young NewPage worker who did not wish to give his name, said he was voting in favour of the contact offer, despite having already decided to leave the mill.

He said since the October layoff, he’s been searching for other ways to support his family. Currently, he’s awaiting word on a job in the Alberta oilsands that would have him flying back and forth to Cape Breton every other week.

“If it passes and I’m not here, somebody else will have my position to come back to,” he said. “Since I’ve been off, I’ve been looking around and a few things have come around, so I’m just waiting to hear word.”

Marc Dube, a spokesman for Pacific West, said the company hopes the mill will begin production in September.

“This is such a clear message to us that the employees of the mill and the people of Port Hawkesbury want us here and that they want to work with us to get the rest of this deal done and get the people back to work,” said Dube.

Dube said negotiations with the province are continuing, and a decision on electricity rates by the Utility and Review Board is also crucial.

“One of the very positive things that took place is the government’s support of a hot idle and keeping the forestry workers going is going to allow for a quick restart as soon as we get the rest of the agreements together,” he said.

Organizations: Paperworkers Local 972, Pacific West Commercial Corp.The, Utility and Review Board

Geographic location: Port Hawkesbury, Point Tupper, Whitecourt Alberta Cape Breton

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